After a brief layover in Lima airport, I boarded my internal flight to Cusco, the Andean city from which most tourist journeys to Machu Pichu typically begin. I had been advised by the tour company with whom I had booked to arrive a day or two before the start of my trek in order to acclimatise to the altitude. (Cusco city is more than 10,000ft above sea level and the trek would take us to circa 15,000ft above sea level.)
Cusco is the erstwhile capital of the Incan empire, founded on the site of an ancient lake and is a triumph of Peruvian and colonial architecture. That said, it’s bloomin’ high up! As soon as I stepped off the plane I felt it: a vice-like grip between my temples reminiscent of sinusitis or a powerful head cold. Had I wondered whether the altitude would affect me, I now had my answer.
I was picked up at the airport by a staff member of the hotel I was to stay in: Eureka San Blas. He can only be described as a “boy racer” – his car was decked out with LEDs, a sound system so large there was barely room for my backpack in the boot and I would not have been surprised to hear that he had installed a NOS button for traffic-light races.
I arrived at Eureka San Blas far more quickly than safety dictated I should and checked in. Given its location in a mountain valley, Cusco has steep hills on all sides which make for excellent, roof-top views.
With a day and a half before my trek, I set out to explore. The afternoon was slow going as my head was fairly painful but, on advice from the receptionist at my hotel, I bought some coca sweets to suck on which seemed to ease the pain. Coca leaves and their derivatives, I was later to discover, are a hugely important part of Peruvian culture and history, but more on that later.
Cusco is a Spanish variant of the Quechua (native Incan language that is still spoken by 15m people across Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Columbia) word “qosqo” meaning “navel” which was given to describe its central position in the Incan empire. Whilst it still exhibits examples of Incan architecture, most of the city is built in colonial style, the terracotta roof tiles making one feel like one could be in Florence or Rome, rather than in Paddington Bear’s birthplace.
The exquisite central square is called La Plaza de Armas and is flanked on one side by a baroque Jesuit church and, on another, by the second largest cathedral in the Americas. The centerpiece of the square is a French-designed fountain atop which sits a gilded statue of Manco Capac, son of Inti, the Sun god, and mythical founder of Cusco. I was amused to learn later that for 80 years from 1910 the statue had been of an Apache indian instead of an Inca due to a naturalised, Texas-born mayor of Cusco caring little about details.
Around the main square runs a network of cobbled streets, some so narrow that you have to flatten yourself against the wall in order to allow a car to pass. As dusk fell on my explorations, I took advantage of a Trip Advisor suggestion and headed to Morena Peruvian Kitchen, some 50m from the Plaza de Armas. What ensued was sheer epicurean delight. I ate skewers of beef heart with yuca fries and a delicious garnish accompanied by the most inviting pisco sours I have ever tasted (a Peruvian drink consisting of pisco, lime and egg white). The service was commensurate with the quality of the food and my smile became a grin. If you ever visit Cusco please promise me you’ll go there.
I hit the hay early to try to beat my altitude headache.
I had made a plan to visit the Mercado de San Pedro – a large, permanent, covered market 10mins walk from my digs. I arrived in time for an early lunch and, having gawped sufficiently at the wares on display, I headed to the southern area of the market where £2-£3 lunches were being offered. A waft of flavours led me in the right direction until I came across a plethora of simple stalls surrounded by wooden benches and plastic chairs. I passed a stall advertising mixed fish ceviche and was felt compelled to try it. It was light, flavourful, wonderful.
Patting myself on the back for my judicious lunch decision, I headed to the meeting point for an Inca-themed tour about which I had heard good things.
As a motley crew of 12 tourists clambered aboard the bus to begin the adventure, the guide, with excellent comic timing, gave us information and instructions about the tour whilst requesting after every single sentence that we not get lost. I shall recount the tour in pictures below but I should tell you that one of our number, having laughed at this joke, did succeed in getting lost later in the day and the guide, having little sympathy, simply left him behind to mourn his life choices.
Upon booking my trek to Machu Picchu, my confirmation email had instructed me to attend a briefing at 18:30 the night before our departure. Time was short after my touristing, so off I dashed. There I was to meet my comrades for the next five days.
To keep posts at a readable length I will now jump to my return to Cusco, leaving the trek for a subsequent, separate (and awesome) post.
We returned mid-evening having started the day at 3am so, whilst attempts were made to keep the night going after a group dinner, they were ultimately unsuccessful. During the trek, despite lathering myself in huge doses of heavy duty mosquito repellant, I had provided meals for a minimum of 27 mosquitos and my left ankle had swollen to such proportions that I now had “cankles” (Google it!) So I bailed too.
My decision to take a post-lunch snooze the next day proved disastrous – I woke at 7pm having slept the whole afternoon and it was all I could do to drag my bleary-eyed self out of bed for supper.
Total things achieved that day: 0
As I write, I am at the airport preparing to leave Cusco. After a small panic this morning upon realising I had booked my flight for 05/10 and not 05/09 (luckily, I was able to change to today at minimal expense) I decided to join a free walking tour of the city to kill time before heading to the airport.
At 10am a group formed around a yellow-jacketed guide who claimed to be called Elvis. The tour was free with Elvis relying uniquely on tips at the end so he needed to know his stuff. And he did!
From why Incan walls have a 7 degree inward slope to how to distinguish a llama from an alpaca, he knew it all.
The edifying 2.5 hours came to an end with us sampling grenadillas, fisalis and custard apples. A veritable treat!
Right, Cusco accounted for. Consider this a warm-up for the next post. It’ll be good, I promise!